Classified ads refer to them as ‘studio garden apartments’.
You’ve got to admire estate agents. There is literally no reality they cannot alter with their mellifluous redefinitions. As a hack, I take my fair share of blame for curbing reality, corralling it with stock phrases, clichéd versions of truth. How else can we sum up a massacre in a news in brief? Fifty words ain’t a lot to play with. But these lads, they’re the masters. We only charge a quid, they sell millions in real estate and nobody blinks an eye.
The steam from the tea has given my aching eyes the optimism of mounting a full visual recce and they go for it.
It’s gloomy. But a special kind of gloom. The gloom that is the shadow behind the sofa, the shade lurking in the meter-reading cupboard under the stairs, the murk that only a basement has. It’s as if Darkness fed up with Light’s intrusion has refused to budge, instead choosing to strangle its nemesis, making it pay for endlessly thwarting its right to exist.
There’s a single door into the bedsit, bolted. A sole, barred window, is the only point of natural light, and even that has largely given up its job, half-obscured by years of grime and dumped rubbish now nuzzling in fold of chip shop paper and desiccated fag butts.
A bed does its best to impersonate a couch along one forlornly empty wall while a metal sink and painfully small wooden kitchen unit above inhabit the opposite wall. Their only companions are a Baby Belling two ring stove oven-grill precariously balanced on a mini-fridge.
Standard fare so far. I sigh. It’s all too familiar from my own earlier days in the capital when I first moved up. No matter how many times I had tried to shake these places out of my blood, they always came back. I’ve lost count of the shitholes like this I’d sat in as a reporter listening to single mums complain of damp, bad boyfriends, slashed dole or marauding hoodies pissing down into the window well. And suicides, always with the suicides. Or worse, the unmissed. Their bodies lying for weeks forlornly rotting, their juices fermenting the carpet fibres, staining the floorboards. That’s a smell that bleach cannot shift.
Once, the river had burst its banks. It had been a flash flood, had gone as quickly as it had came and apart from miserable shop keepers and pissed off commuters, there was little to write – until a babbling,crying student rang me on the paper, raging against his mum’s boyfriend. I’d continued watching the news, phone cradled in my neck, saying ‘Um’ at encouraging intervals, on autopilot. He was Filipino and lived abroad while his mum worked here as a nurse, sending cash back home. He’d got my name from our website and convinced me she had taken a beating from her boyfriend. The flat was on my way home so I said I’d check in on her after I left work. I’d gone to the pub instead waiting for the congestion to calm down but when I did struggle home, the marrow in my bones chilled. Pale blue light was bouncing off the blocks of flats, impassively standing as brick sentinels, the occasional half-opened sash window resembling a quizzical raised eyebrow. The radio chatter of walkie talkies greeted me when I finally rounded the corner. And the drone of pumps, fire tender pumps, but instead of spraying water, they were sucking it in, from a basement flat. Her basement flat.
The flood had hit here. And as the blue lights from the ambulance flicked round I could see the tiny window. It was barred.
Basement flats. Graves waiting to happen.
Just three good glugs of tea in my gullet and I’m feeling semi-human. I’d demolished the buttie too quickly and when I burped I had a backdraft of HP sauce interleaved with the alcohol whimsy of sweet Red Bull. I quickly glug some more tea.
‘You demolished that as if your stomach had suspected someone had cut your throat,’ came the voice. ‘And you drink fiercely, far too fiercely in my view.’
‘The tea?’ I ask.
‘Well, it was a long day..Or night? What the hell time is it, by the way?’ I ask. I’m getting used to the gloom now and I find him languishing on what looks at first to be a futon but actually is a mahogany chaise longue with a deep teale green velvet cover. Its classy, even if it is a bit Victorian spiritualist parlour for my taste.
‘’Which time is it? Does it really matter?’ He casually, and begins to uncurl from the chaise, stretch and shimmer like a waking cat, before slumping back onto his side. For an ancient looking one-eyed drunken Irish pub hound, he’s limber, real limber. His movements are deliberate, each casual stretch held and then released with a yawn or a sigh, yoga for the lazy. It’s actually quite unnerving and I focus on him properly.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t think I got your name last night? I’m Frayne, Tom Frayne.’ He replies with a gentle snort, the sole eye glinting in the gloom. He doesn’t immediately come back to me, just continues with the stretching. I’m still in my suit and tie (complete with fresh rivulets of HP sauce) but he’s clearly been up and about and is changed. He appears to be wearing an extravagant smoking jacket made from crushed heavy red velvet and instead of being set off with the standard black silk lapel appears to have bright gold trim instead. It’s very ornate, and appears to be improbably old, antique.
‘Yes,’ he manages mid-stretch yawn, ‘ I know who you are.’
He leans forward out of the miasmatic light, his blue-sky eye fixing on me like a searchlight hunting ships in the fog, and an open palm emerges from the cavern of his monstrous sleeve.
‘They call me Olaf. But ye can call me Ned.’
Categories: The Last Seanachie